A Brief Biography of Paul Bénichou

Introduction

Paul Bénichou, who died on May 14, 2001 in Paris at the age of 92, is universally recognized by students of French literature as one of the most important scholars of the twentieth century. He spent most of the years of this century deepening our understanding of the literature of the previous three. In addition to revising our view of French classicism and romanticism, he also wrote notable path-breaking studies of the French chanson folklorique and the Spanish romancero. The five thousand pages he penned have influenced our understanding of the greatest French writers from Corneille to Mallarmé. They also refined our conception of the place of literature in the history of modern society (particularly with regard to religion and what he calls "spiritual authority") and the process whereby one generation influences another.

Youth

Paul Bénichou was born in Tlemcen, in French Algeria, on September 19, 1908, the son of Samuel Bénichou, a Jewish merchant, and Rachel (Sarfati) Bénichou, a descendant of a Sephardic family from Spain. Bénichou quickly distinguished himself as a brilliant student in his secondary studies in Oran, and traveled to Paris to continue his education at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in the heart of the Latin Quarter -- next door to the Collège de France, where, some sixty-five years later, a colloquium of specialists would gather to honor his work. He studied at the École Normale Supérieure alongside Sartre, Aron, and Merleau-Ponty, and achieved his licence in 1927 and his agrégation in 1930. At this time he was also active in surrealist literary circles in Paris, and in 1929 he married Gina Labin, a lawyer and writer, who survives him.

Les Années 1930

In the 1930s, while Bénichou taught in prestigious secondary schools -- the École Alsacienne in Paris (1930-1934), the Lycée de Beauvais (1934-1937), and the Lycée de Sailly, in Paris (1937-1939) -- he researched and wrote Morales du grand siècle, a study of the interplay of heroic, Christian, and worldly ideals in French classicism. His manuscript was substantially complete when French society was thrown into turmoil by war. On October 18, 1940, anti-Semitic Vichy legislation stripped Jews from Algeria like Bénichou of French citizenship, although both his father and grandfather had never had any other nationality. Thus an outstanding French scholar of French literature was absurdly forbidden the right to teach in France. The final paragraph of Morales du grand siècle, dated "Bergerac [in the zône libre, where Bénichou had taken refuge], August 1940," in modern France's darkest hour, is a moving expression of confidence that the anti-humanism and nihilism that had temporarily triumphed would not ultimately prevail.

Expatriate years

Fortunately, Bénichou and his family succeeded in leaving war-torn France and made their way to Argentina, where, from 1942 to 1949, he taught at the Institut Français d'Études Supérieures in Buenos Aires. Deprived of access to French archives, Bénichou pursued highly original research in the romancero which later culminated in the publication of two volumes on this subject. He became acquainted with the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, whom he and and daughter Sylvia would later translate into French. In 1949 Bénichou returned to France to teach at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, having in the previous year seen Gallimard at last publish his Morales du grand siécle. In a half-century, this enduring classic has sold more than 100,000 copies.

The Consecration of the Writer

It was at this time that Paul Bénichou undertook his most ambitious and important scholarly project. He had always been struck by the pessimism of the great French writers of the mid-nineteenth century -- Baudelaire and Flaubert, in particular. What accounts for such pessimism in an era of general confidence, progress, and hope? For twenty years, Bénichou researched the history of ideas about the creative writer's relation to society. This research culminated in a series of major works that, taken together, constitute a coherent study of French literature and thought from 1750 to 1898. These volumes are also a searching analysis of the spiritual predicament of modern Western civilization in general, shedding light on the literature of other nations as well as on our contemporary situation. These interrelated works, which Bénichou began to publish only at the age of 65, are: (For more information on these and other works by and about Bénichou, see this pages's annotated bibliography.) During the years that Bénichou researched these volumes, he taught one semester a year at Harvard University (1959-1979).

After his retirement from teaching in 1979, Paul Bénichou lived on the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs in Paris, where he continued to devote himself to writing, scholarship, and his family. He remained active, and in good health until just before the end of his long life. He never stopped writing; he continued work on his last undertaking, a commentary to Nerval's Les Chimères up until the day before he died. His mortal remains lie in Père-Lachaise, not far from Chopin's.

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Last updated August 21, 2001